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Latest Chapter in Mideast Tension Is Dennis Ross vs. George Mitchell

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be near collapse, but the Washington turf wars surrounding it are still going strong, according to sources involved in the negotiations.

The administration’s top Middle East hands — special envoy George Mitchell and White House adviser Dennis Ross — are increasingly at loggerheads, these sources say.

In the past month, both men were dispatched separately to the region to hold talks, and while all parties involved in the process agree that the two envoys coordinate their activities, they agree, too, that the tensions between them were painfully evident. “There is not much love there,” an Israeli official involved in the peace process said. A Palestinian negotiator added: “We can definitely feel it. Very much so.”

These officials, like others who spoke to the Forward for this article, insisted on not being named, due to their ongoing relations with Ross and Mitchell.

Stories of the tense relations have been circulating in Washington’s diplomatic rumor mill for months. Observers have noted that the two senior negotiators hardly ever sit together in meetings with their regional counterparts.

The reported friction is, in part, a result of Ross’s increasing influence over Middle East peacemaking efforts. While originally focused on Iran and regional strategic issues, Ross’s portfolio has broadened to include Israel, as the White House has felt a need to repair frayed ties with American Jews and Israeli officials disturbed over perceptions that the administration was pressuring Israel.

Now, both Ross — who previously led U.S. efforts to advance the peace process over several earlier administrations — and Mitchell find themselves trying to save the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“All this stuff is peace process inside baseball,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator. Miller, currently with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that while the perceived tensions between Ross and Mitchell were a marginal issue, “they reflect the bigger problem, which is that of a dysfunctional administration in which no one is in charge.”

Ross’s increased involvement in the Middle East peace process became apparent when the administration engaged in talks with Israel over extending the moratorium on settlement expansion. Ross, according to American and Israeli officials, was the driving force behind the idea of offering Israel a generous package of assurances — both defense-related and diplomatic — in return for three extra months of a freeze on the expansion of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. A source briefed on the talks explained that Ross took the lead because the package was a matter of bilateral America-Israel relations and had a significant security component.

Even though Israel ultimately turned down the offer, the episode reinserted Ross as a key player not only on broader strategic Middle East issues, but also on the nitty-gritty of the peace process.

Meanwhile Ross’s increasingly frequent travels to the region drew media attention to the division of responsibilities within the administration on managing the peace process. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley struggled in a January 3 press briefing to fend off questions about the increasingly direct role the White House is playing on this issue through Ross, who is a presidential aide.

“The president is fortunate to have a broad array of officials who have experience in these issues and are fully engaged in trying to resolve them,” Crowley answered. The peace process team, he stressed, “is well coordinated.”

Since his retirement in 1995 from the U.S. Senate, where he served as majority leader, Mitchell has taken on a variety of high-profile tasks, from brokering peace in Northern Ireland to investigating the use of drugs in Major League baseball. He was President Obama’s first foreign policy appointment, an ordering of priorities meant to underline the importance the incoming leader put on advancing the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israelis expressed their suspicions — in part due to a report that Mitchell wrote during the Second Intifada, in which he urged Israel to freeze West Bank settlement expansion, and in part because of fear that Mitchell’s Lebanese ancestry would bias his approach.

Mitchell set up a team of a dozen members, including a permanent representative in Israel and another aide dedicated to negotiating with Syria and Lebanon. When speaking publicly about the chances of achieving Middle East peace, Mitchell often referred to his work in Northern Ireland, where he experienced “700 days of failure and one day of success.” He has since passed the 700-day marker in his Middle East mission, prompting questions from the news media about the possibility of him stepping down.

“This is the monthly rumor about George Mitchell’s departure,” Crowley responded when asked in November.

Ross joined the White House in June 2009 as special assistant to the president and senior director for the central region, after a short stint as an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department. His vague job description left many in Washington guessing as to his responsibilities. But over time he became pivotal in shaping the administration’s policy toward Iran.

Ross’s involvement in the peace process increased when the administration sought to ease its troubled relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and with the Jewish community. A longtime Middle East hand, Ross, who is widely liked and trusted by Israelis, was sent to assure Jerusalem that the Obama administration was committed to Israel’s security and wellbeing. He also publicly addressed Jewish audiences at several events.

Ross’s history as a veteran peace negotiator under successive presidents from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush gives him a record of experience in the region that few can match. But critics counter that this experience reflects a record of U.S. failure in the region, particularly with regard to the Oslo process that collapsed under his long-term role as its chief negotiator and strategist on the U.S. side.

Nevertheless, Ross’ strong ties to Israel now make him indispensable to the administration. Those ties include his previous role as head of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank founded by the Jewish Agency for Israel. His son, Gabe, is also married to an Israeli. These factors, together with Ross’s strong personal sense of Jewish identity, have gained him a reputation of being pro-Israeli.

“In every administration, we tend to look for a bogeyman to blame,” a Palestinian official said, “and now it is Dennis.”

For Israelis, however, Ross’s appearance on the scene was a welcome change because he had long-standing ties with Israeli officials and was widely recognized as having a strong understanding of Israeli politics and society.

“Dennis is the closest thing you’ll find to a melitz yosher, as far as Israel is concerned,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who used the ancient Hebrew term for “advocate.”

A senior Israeli official added that while Mitchell is the “chief contractor of the peace process,” when the United States needs “someone that speaks our language and can squeeze a compromise from us, they send Ross.”

A State Department official, when asked to define Mitchell’s responsibilities, said that he “is the envoy for bringing a two-state solution and comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.” Ross, on the other hand, deals with regional issues by focusing on security and strategy, a definition that includes holding close consultations with Israel on Iran and on security issues. According to officials involved in the peace talks, Ross refrains from any dealing with the Palestinian side.

While it is clear that Israelis prefer to work with Ross and that Palestinians would rather have Mitchell doing the negotiating, the two men do not differ in their ultimate vision of the peace process. Both, according to public statements and private talks, believe that the solution will eventually be close to the parameters set out by President Clinton in 2000.

The differences, if any, relate to their approach toward peacemaking.

“Mitchell believes that if you can start negotiations, then you can solve the conflict. I’m not sure Dennis holds that view,” said Miller, who worked closely with Ross on the Middle East peace process in several previous administrations.

Others have also described Ross as more skeptical about the chances of peace, based on his decades-long experience with trying to bring together the parties.

The diverging approaches of the two men could come to a test later this year. Faced with a process that seems terminally stalled, experts predicted that the Obama administration will soon confront the need for a new peacemaking policy in the Middle East.

One possibility, viewed as closer to Mitchell’s approach, would be to put forward an American peace plan. The other, which could be seen as more in line with Ross’s view, would be to decrease involvement and focus on conflict management.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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